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The world’s food, our fortune April 26, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, consumer, diversity, energy, food, learn, life, nature, world.
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wheat seeds - Time

One of my favourite family stories has to do with food. My mother grew up near London, and remembers standing at the back door and watching bombs falling during the Second World War. The frequent air raids meant that visits to the nearby bomb shelter became part of the family’s daily routine. On one occasion (that I know about), her mother ran out of the bomb shelter during a raid to fetch the roast from the oven. Bombs may be falling, but the family has to have its dinner!

The western world’s focus has recently turned from the consumption of “stuff” to the consumption of food. Much has been written about the current global food shortage crisis.

Yet how can it be a crisis is when people have been talking about a global food shortage for at least 10 years? There have been famines and other food-related crises in the world before now. Perhaps this time is different because the wealthy countries are sitting up and complaining, too.

The food shortage is affecting countries in different ways. There have been protests in Mexico, where the price of tortillas rose 400% in at the end of 2007, and Haiti, where the poor are eating “dirt cookies” (made of dirt, water, salt and butter. India recently banned the export of all except the highest quality rice. A sharp increase in the cost of milk (blamed on floods in Argentina and a drought in Australia) have affected foods from cheese to croissants. Higher wheat and fuel costs were blamed for a 20% increase in pasta in Italy. There have been bread-queue riots in Egypt, and unrest across Africa.

Global Food Crisis - Der SpiegelIn some parts of the world, food prices for staples have risen 50% or more over the past year. However, in the United States, consumers have had to cope with a 6.5% increase in their grocery bill.

A UN official recently listed a number of causes:

  • growing populations
  • crops being used for biofuels
  • more sophisticated (or diverse) diets in places like India and China
  • a lack of strategic grain reserves
  • the effects of climate change causing drought conditions in places such as in Australia, affecting wheat production in recent years.

A related problems is that of inefficient food distribution and food wastage. Have many of us have refrigerators full of food we don’t need and might not get around to eating? I can’t even imagine how much wasted food restaurants and grocery stores throw into the garbage. In 1995, the BBC reported that 17 million tonnes of food is added to landfills in Great Britain each year because it’s cheaper for the food industry to dump it than give it away.

And with the globalization of food production and distribution, more people are beginning to rely on processed or pre-packaged food. Western foods (can you say MacDonald’s?) are a cultural as well as commercial influence.

The fact is, like the cheap energy we have been used to, food doesn’t get any respect. I’m not suggesting that high food prices are good — there are too many people in this world who have barely enough to eat as it is — but that the North, as the source of much of the world’s food, doesn’t know how to tighten its belt. (And while I’m on the subject of belt-tightening, I know I’m not the only person who should be eating less!) The word “rationing”, familiar with the Second-World War generation but a foreign idea to most westerners today, is coming into vogue again.

People react to the threat of a global oil shortage produces in two ways: by panicking and and buying up all remaining stocks (have you seen the price of gas lately?), or increasing research into alternative energy sources in order to wean themselves off oil dependency.

That’s why I think the boom in biofuel research and production — as wrong-headed as some of it is turning out to be, what with everyone running off madly in all directions — is a good sign. It means that costs are now high enough to make people value alternatives, and maybe think more carefully about conservation and how to stop wasting the energy we produce now.

And so I recommend the “don’t panic” approach to the current food shortage. (Waves of panic-buying of staples and rice-rationing have already hit some U.S. food stores.) Greed won’t get us out of this difficulty, but thankfulness might. We need to appreciate what we already have, and support ongoing work to better manage food distribution, diversity, and sustainability. Let’s get our governments to find some swords-into-ploughshares funding and share the wealth… of food, that is!

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Related Links:
CBC interactive: Global Food Prices
CBC: “Beef is out, wheat is in: farmers”
Guardian, UK: “Change in farming can feed world: report”

Telegraph, UK: “Potatoes could solve food shortage”
ABC: “UN warns on food shortage riots”
Financial Post: “Forget oil, the new global crisis is food”
Time: “How to End the Global Food Shortage”



1. Chris Shaw - April 26, 2008

I’ll add one more cause to the UN’s list. Genetic monoculture in large scale crop production. If, for example, most of the wheat planted in an area is of one variety, then the entire crop will be vulnerable to certain types of climate change, pests, etc. But with a healthy mix of species, the effect of such changes can be markedly reduced. An example of this could be seen in a year with unusually high pest activity, during which hulled varieties of wheat (such as Spelt) will survive storage better than free threshing varieties (such as Durum).

2. eyegillian - April 27, 2008

Thanks for your comment, Chris! I totally agree with you about the lack of genetic diversity and the way fewer varieties make crops more vulnerable to disease and disaster. The way huge seed corporations have farms “over a barrel” — distributing strains that require the heavy use of fertilizers, for example — is really worrying. Perhaps that’s why there was so much interest in the new “Doomsday seed vault” built on the isolated northern island of Spitsbergen in Norway.

I appreciate the Spelt vs Durum info, too — I didn’t know about hulled version free-threshing qualities. Although there’s no farming in my background, I don’t want to forget where my food comes from or the real cost of providing it, plastic-wrapped and sanitized, in my local grocery store.

3. lavenderbay - April 28, 2008

Although the word “rationing” may be becoming familiar again, it was never popular. While I agree with your conclusion — the lilies-of-the-field philosophy — I think you started your article with an answer to why people hoard. I’m sure your mother would rather have had a slightly bigger bomb shelter, with room for a cooker and a fridge, rather than risk her mother getting killed on the way back with the roast.

I wonder, even, if WWII was responsible for a lot of obesity in today’s wealthier nations. Rationing must have really played with people’s heads. Their responses to renewed postwar riches were probably often exaggerated — either continuing to shortchange their own offspring (who would rebel as adults, having been cheated in a time of prosperity), or stuffing them silly.
Just a thought.

4. naturallyinteresting - April 28, 2008

I was shocked when I went to Costco recently do discover that they were limiting how much rice you could buy. The U.S. is a massive exporter of grains, yet we are rationing rice? Strange times ahead…

5. eyegillian - April 29, 2008

Your comment on the psychological effect of rationing, lavenderbay, reminds me of the current wisdom about the effects of dieting on our internal survival mechanisms. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that a response like hoarding (of fat on our bodies, as well as food in the cellar) is a healthy reaction to the threat of famine…!

I was reading about the rationing in the U.S., naturallyinteresting, and I have to admit that it amazes me how many people panic when they are told they can only buy one bag of rice. I mean, how many bags do you usually buy? I guess we humans are just contrary by nature: we don’t like having our choices limited!

6. Food price rises and Crisis!!!! - June 11, 2008

Food grain shortage may have many reasons but two main reasons we are not taking into consideration. They are excessive urban growth and pruning agricultural lands and agriculture as non profitable business any more.

Similar situation is now with entire world, demand is more and production is less due to imbalanced economic policies. More attention is given to urban economic growth than the rural research and development. A day will come when a slogan or will find ad “Buy one kg of rice and get a laptops free” as computers and other electronic products will be much cheaper. Economic growth has to be balanced considering social condition of the country. Banning exports of essential items is only temporary solution to overcome present situation but for future food grain shortage will further aggravate as
• Global warming – Nature earth’s own modifications and adjustments is the natural. Excessive human population, Excessive concrete buildings – industries (even excessive urbanization has role to warm our globe), carbon fuel based transportations heat up environment to reduce moisture in land results shortage and uncertain rain, river shrinkage, draught, shortage of water and so on.
• 25 years back there was more agricultural land than of today many of them converted to more and more housing and industrial lands; whereas population growing fast, feeding will become challenge to most countries even developed countries will not escape. Nature’s priority is water, food and then shelter. Economic and scientific growth need to be first based on human needs.
• Urban related economic growth thrusts agricultural land conversion to cities and building to accommodate urban population and industries. Over 20% of farm lands of developing countries have been converted to cities and buildings for the past decades and Over 50% of farmlands of villages (close to cities) got merged with cities.
• Non profitable food grain production (international organization and appropriate governments shall have to reconsider bring back agricultural subsidies). Also make agriculture more profitable by linking customer and farmers by way of direct procurement by large stores, and other agencies so mediators and brokers are kept away. There are many reasons for high cost of production of food grain but as food comes in highest priority WTO and the Governments need to reconsider bringing back subsidies or other incentives to farmers as is the only solution to make agriculture more profitable to farmers. Present situation is such that farmers get more profit selling their land to builders than farming.
• Escalation of essential food prices by “futures” trading (without add on value to product) helps hording so less and less mediators between producer and final customer. Present system of trading agricultural goods only helps middlemen from wholesalers to brokers. Their financial power helps them hold back stock to create artificial shortage.
• Irrigation and water shortage (In fact water crisis is there but in some states and countries water is excessive causing disaster or consumed by sea. If scientists of missiles or warplanes work on how river water reaches sea after consumed by entire world, would convert desert land to fertile land).
• Bio fuel is not alone the reason for food crisis as one day world will have to switch over to alternate source for fuel usage and bio fuel will be one of the substitutes. However, using human food as fuel is unjustified as food is the first priority than the fuel. Need to source other plants such as river or sea plants or from land plants not used for growing food grain.

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